The most primary source for the Justification for slavery comes from pseudo-lineage from the Bible. It is based on the dependents of Noah.
When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him, he said, “Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.” He also said, “Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. (Genesis 9:24-27)
Christians believed (without proper evidence) that Canaan had settled in Africa. The dark skin of Africans became associated with this “curse of Ham.” Thus slavery of Africans became religiously justifiable. The situation is best explained by Anthony Pagden, Professor of Political Science at the University of California.
“This reading of the Book of Genesis merged easily into a medieval iconographic tradition in which devils were always depicted as black. Later pseudo-scientific theories would be built around African skull shapes, dental structure, and body postures, in an attempt to find an unassailable argument–rooted in whatever the most persuasive contemporary idiom happened to be: law, theology, genealogy, or natural science — why one part of the human race should live in perpetual indebtedness to another.” (Anthony Pagden)
The next passage often used is from the Levitical laws in the Old Testament. As most probably know, the ancient Hebrew customs would have allowed forms of slavery, though not quite like the slavery we saw in the African slave trade era.
As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among the aliens residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property. These you may treat as slaves, but as for your fellow Israelites, no one shall rule over the other with harshness. (Leviticus 25:44-46)
One of the difficulties of this verse is that the justification of slave ownership was that the slaves were not part of the chosen people of God. They were of the cursed nations that God gave to them to conquer. He also told them to kill all the living inhabitants (Deut 20:16-18) because they would not follow God and had defiled the land (Leviticus 18:24-28).
Understanding Canaanite slavery allowance
The Old Testament shows God as being straight fed up with the Canaanites. Naturally, this is why he commanded the Israelites to wipe them out, just like God did with the great flood. From a modern perspective even this seems a bit much. In order to understand why God was so furious with the Canaanites one would have to have a much longer history lesson than I am providing here. Perhaps in a future post I can cover the history of the Canaanites and why they were detestable to God. Either way, God was done with them and was ready to prop up another nation that would not behave so terribly.
What did the Canaanites do that was so detestable to God? God lists some of the reasons in Leviticus. After the Canaanite list God then lists other things that he finds detestable; most likely being done by the Canaanites. He also mentions other places in the Pentateuch why the Canaanites were so wicked and therefore, needed to be wiped out. Chapters 19-21 in Leviticus are essentially a huge list of things not to do so that they do not end up like the Canaanites.
- Incest relations (Leviticus 18:6-16)
- Various sexual misconducts (Leviticus 18:17-20)
- Sacrificing children to Molek (Leviticus 18:21)
- Homosexuality (Leviticus 18:22)
- Bestiality (Leviticus 18:23)
- Lying (Leviticus 19:11-12)
- Stealing (Leviticus 19:13)
- Taking advantage of the disabled (Leviticus 19:14)
- Perverting justice in the courts and favoring the wealthy while punishing the poor (Leviticus 19:15)
- Slander (Leviticus 19:16)
- Hating your neighbors (Leviticus 19:17)
- Seeking revenge and holding grudges (Leviticus 19:18)
- Witchcraft (Leviticus 19:26)
- Necromancy and body mutilation (Leviticus 19:28)
- Prostituting your daughter (Leviticus 19:29)
- Using spiritual mediums and psychics (Leviticus 19:31)
- Mistreating foreigners in the land (Leviticus 19:34)
- Cheating people with money exchanges by fixing scales (Leviticus 19:35)
This is where I should point out that God only allowed for the Canaanites to be slaves. He did not allow Israel to enslave anyone they wanted. It was only the detestable people who God decided they needed to be wiped out, like the days of Noah, because they were so wicked. Within many passages in the Pentateuch God commands the Israelites to treat all foreigners as their own. This is why the slave propaganda tried to fervently to connect the Africans with the Canaanites. It was the only way to use the Old Testament to justify slavery. Any other way was forbidden. If the Africans could not be linked to Canaan then they would have to find a non-religious reason to enslave them.
The New Testament was also used to justify slavery. One of the main passages was from Ephesians. At the time of writing Paul was already done with his missionary journeys and was being held prisoner in Rome. Currently, a lot of tensions between Christians and the major powers were developing. The social order was deteriorating and the Romans really did not like the Christians or the Jews because they were seen as rebellious. Moreover, the Jews did not really keep slaves like the Romans. It was said of that day that nearly 1/3 of the Roman population were slaves. Some have the estimates as high as 40%. Either way, Paul was not ready to overturn the Roman social order and teach that slaves should be freed. That would result in a slave uprising and would have spelled the dead for the remaining Jews and Christians in the land.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not people, because you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do, whether they are slave or free. And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.(Ephesians 6:5-9)
This verse brings up the strange contradiction between some of Paul’s other works like his letter to Philemon and his declaration that all men are equal before God, even slaves. However, I would point out that Paul’s mission was not to right every wrong in the world or to turn the social order on it’s head. That is what Jesus did. Rather, Paul spent his time leading people to Christ no matter where they were in life. He spent very little time talking about or critiquing the culture and it’s customs, other than idolatry and religious concerns.
But, no matter the intentions of Paul in his writings, this verse was low hanging fruit for the slave owners. They even had “preachers” come and preach on weekends and made sure that the preachers taught from verses like these. Unfortunately, slaves owners did not heed the rest of that passage that states “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him.”
Colossians was written about the same time as Ephesians, while Paul was held prisoner in Rome. Like Ephesians, Paul stresses the importance of treating the slaves fairly and just.
Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 4:1)
Paul wants the over-all social structure to behave in a more Christ-like manner, even if he is not ready to overturn the apple cart. Therefore, slaves should obey their masters and masters should treat their slaves as they would like to be treated. This particular passage was not used in context very well. Typically this would be used as justification for slavery and the whole part about treating slaves fairly was left out.
Much like Colossians and Ephesians, Paul reiterated his commands Christian slaves to behave in the most Christ-like manner possible so that they will draw respect, in spite of their circumstances.
Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2:9-10)
One can easily see how this passage was used to justify slavery. Not only that, but it can easily be used to demand certain behavior expectations from the slaves.
Understanding Paul’s strange slave obedience commands
Paul was indeed under the impression that Jesus was returning soon and very soon. While it appears from many of his writings that most slavery is wrong he is reluctant to declare publicly that slavery should be abolished, even though he hints at it in some letters. The reason (I believe) for this is because if Jesus is coming back very soon then what is the point in causing another slave revolt and inciting more bloodshed when the kingdom to come is so closely at hand?
Keep in mind that it was very common for slaves to revolt in the 1st century Roman empire. About 1/3 of the population were slaves to only a few very wealthy owners. The rest of the population were poor and just as
disgruntled as the slaves (Acts 6:9). Plutarch records some of the slave revolts in his work “Life of Crassus” as well as “Civil Wars”, written by Appian of Alexandria. In one episode the revolters were treated as a military foe.
It was now no longer the indignity and disgrace of the revolt that harassed the senate, but they were constrained by their fear and peril to send both consuls into the field, as they would to a war of the utmost difficulty and magnitude. (Life of Crassus 9:6)
(On a side-note) In American slavery revolts and run-aways were also quite common. But the slave culture was prepared to deal with it just as much as the Romans were. They were so common that the industry of slave catching was very lucrative. Owners would post descriptions of the missing slaves and offer good sums of money for their return. In some cases men and women of color who are actually free would be captured and turned in as a slave for money or to replace a missing slave. Such practices were also employed by modern slave owners during the period of slavery in the USA.
Another reason I believe Paul did not over-turn the apple cart is because another uprising of Jews against the Roman empire (Christians were considered Jews to Rome) would have certainly ended in extinction of the Jews. In fact, that is precisely what happened in 66CE – 70CE. Keep in mind that most all slave owners were Roman. Any type of slave revolt in Judea could end negatively for the Jews and Christian Gentiles living in Jewish territories. The first revolt, in the “Great Revolt” of 66AD, ended with the death of over 6,000 Jews, which eventually lead to a full scale revolt of the Jewish people.
I think the other reason we don’t see the NT take as hard of a stance on slavery as we would like to is because the system of slavery was much different than what was experienced in the African slave trade. Many slaves in the 1st century were slaves as a form of legal punishment or as an act of repayment. A major exception would have been prisoners of war and political prisoners. This was how slavery originally started in the US before things got out of hand. Initially the slaves were servants and usually had a preset time of service. This was how my family got here also. They started as indentured servants on the farms. Eventually, my family was able to have their own farm.
Slaves in the 1st century typically were not placed on field or hard labor duty unless they were being punished by the law or if they were unable to acquire any skills. Labor duties were very harsh slaves placed on labor tasks for long periods of time often died young.